Poetry News

John Keene in Conversation at Bookforum

By Harriet Staff
John Keene

Bookforum hosts a conversation between John Keene and Matthew Shen Goodman in the latest installment of its Interviews series. "The writer, translator, and poet John Keene has long married a daringly experimental style with a commitment to stories that are usually omitted by history’s ellipses," Goodman writes in his introduction. Picking up from there: 

It’s an approach tangible in his work as a translator, where Keene has long expounded the need for English editions of black diasporic authors (coining, in his essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” the hashtag #NonAnglophoneNarrativesStoriesPoemsandOtherFormsof ExpressionofBlackLivesMatter); as well as in his fiction, from his 1995 debut Annotations, a black, queer bildungsroman-turned-fugue of semi-autobiographical notations, to Counternarratives, a collection of short stories and novellas published in 2015.

A feat of decolonial historiography, Counternarratives utilizes a wide array of historical idioms to explore the experiences of people of color in the Americas from the seventeenth century to the present. Keene, who is a professor and the chair of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, was recently named a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. I spoke with him on the phone the day after the midterm elections.

How does it feel to receive the MacArthur?

It’s wonderful to have your work recognized, but it continues to feel unexpected. Someone asked if I was going to call myself a genius now, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Come on.”

“Experimental” writers are not often granted that kind of recognition.

I’ve been at this for a while. My experience has often been to encounter a certain level of discouragement when it comes to publishing my work, and yet to press forward. So far, it has worked out. It has not been easy, though, and I’m hardly alone in this experience.

Learn more at Bookforum

Originally Published: December 13th, 2018